The Elias Quartet: Particularly Persuasive in Mendelssohn and Schumann

AustriaAustria Salzburg Mozartwoche (4) – Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann: Elias Quartet (Sara Bittloch, Donald Grant [violins], Martin Saving [viola], Marie Bittloch [cello]). Grosse Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 31.1.2016 (MB)

Mozart – String Quartet no.18 in A major, KV 464
Mendelssohn – String Quartet no.2 in A minor, op.13
Schumann – String Quartet no.1 in A minor, op.41 no.1

There was much to enjoy in this recital from the Elias Quartet, substituting for the Hagen Quartet; I doubt that anyone would have been disappointed by the substitution. Perhaps ironically, given that this was the Salzburg Mozartwoche, it was the Mozart performance (the A major Quartet, KV 464) to which I responded less warmly, but I suspect that that was as much a matter of taste as anything else. There was certainly cultivated, sweet-toned playing to be heard from the opening of the first movement, but I sometimes wished for greater variety in articulation. Otherwise, there was plenty of light and shade. Counterpoint and harmony were in fine balance in the minuet and trio. Again, the performance was sweet of tone, but I felt it might have smiled more. The Andante had many of the characteristics of the earlier movements: beautiful but, at times, a little suffocating. There was, though, some ardent, committed playing, especially in the minor mode. I liked the players’ way with the sinuous chromatic lines of the finale, perhaps the movement I enjoyed most; again, there was some splendidly ardent playing.

The Mendelssohn A minor Quartet, op.13, opened in similarly beautiful fashion, also conveying the importance of the composer’s harmonic shifts. More than once, Beethoven came to mind: no bad thing in a string quartet! The first movement exposition was full-blooded, without sacrifice to tonal beauty. Solos had a real sense of response to each other, all very well taken, displaying difference in unity. The terse quality of the closing bars questioned facile assumptions concerning the composer. The second movement sounded haunted by the sweet fragility of late Beethoven, at least at the opening, before developing in a fashion that surprised in other ways; there was a passion to be heard that would not have been out of place in Berg. When the return of what we might call late Beethovenian spirit came, the question seemed to be: is this resignation? As Mendelssohn would later point out, music is often too precise for words. Whatever it was, it was undeniably moving. Again, though it never sounded ‘like’ late Beethoven, the different tendencies and sheer strangeness of the third movement had something of that spirit. However, I did wonder whether the Allegro di molto might have benefited from sounding a little rawer in tone. There was certainly no lack of a ‘cry’ at the opening of the finale. It would have made anyone sit up, without seeming a mere effect. The seriousness of the young Mendelssohn’s ambition and accomplishment was clear throughout.

Schumann’s A minor Quartet, his first (I confess to tiring a little of the key!), opened in wonderfully austere, ‘ancient’ fashion, gradually, magically warming. Bach was never far away, it seemed. The surprise of the key (F major) in the main Allegro registered as it should; it disconcerted, even when one knew it was coming. So did the path of the movement as a whole; this was not comfortable Schumann. The scherzo offered the return of A minor and, almost, so it seemed, of Mendelssohn. Its trio sounded almost Mozartian by contrast: a winning element in programming and performance. The return of F major in the slow movement, with its unmistakeable echoes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, registered with particular songfulness. Again, there were no easy consolations here; indeed, there was a tendency towards fragmentation that again made me think of late Beethoven, even Schoenberg (doubtless via Brahms). There were more than occasional pre-echoes of Brahms in the finale, whose performance yet remained true to its own particular character. The final turn to A major proved a delightful surprise: again, even when, perhaps especially when, one knew. Two Scottish tunes made for an encore as surprising as it was excellent; they were very well-received.

Mark Berry



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